Simone de Beauvoir stands alongside Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus as the trinity of French existentialist writers that most people will encounter in their dealings with modern 20th century existentialism after Heidegger. Influenced by philosophers like Augustine, Hegel, Marx, and Heidegger, the French existentialists took their intellectual forebears and turned them in new directions. Simone de Beauvoir achieved precisely that in her feminist turn in the 1950s-1960s when writing the Second Sex (1949) and the Woman Destroyed (1968).
In the Introduction to the Second Sex Beauvoir is asking the Hegelian question does the authentic woman exist? It is a Hegelian question because, as we shall see, it is loaded with Hegelian phenomenological and dialectical presumptions. Can authentic woman exist in itself? Or is woman dependent on the other? Is woman understood in relationality (to men), or can woman be isolated and understood authentically as the it-self? What kind of world and its “ready-made values” does woman find herself in? If consciousness, as Hegel suggested, is dependent on dialectic, then woman has a problem with regards to the fact that she is understood in relationality to man. The Introduction, in of itself, is a masterful essay that might as well be a standalone work – it also establishes the framework and grounding for the rest of the over 700-page text.
Thus, this is the backdrop to Beauvoir’s great text of second wave feminism which would influence Shulamith Firestone, whose work The Dialectic of Sex was dedicated to Beauvoir of which I covered here. For Beauvoir, woman exists in the world of ready-made values and structures established by men. In her introduction Beauvoir is asking the question of whether the authentic woman exists and how would we even know what the authentic woman is like.
To define oneself as woman, “I am woman,” implies a dialectic contrast. Definitions are always made in dialectical opposite to the Other. Here Beauvoir shows off her reading of Hegel and the problem that Hegelian phenomenology and consciousness poses to the woman. In defining herself as the woman, woman is the negative correspondence to man. Man is the metaphysical given. Woman is not. This is borne out in ancient theologies and mythologies too: Adam (man) was created first and Eve (woman) second (hence the “Second Sex”). Mesopotamian creation myths saw the god-man warrior Marduk slay and defeat the woman-chaos monster Tiamet. Older creation myths see the male gods as rational and inseminating through a position of dominance over their female counterparts.
As such, since man is the metaphysical given woman is the Other – the antithesis to man. Man is the subject consciousness while woman is the object(ified) Other. Man has constructed the view where woman is juxtaposed to man at all times. Thus, to define oneself as a woman is to play the game that men have rigged from the start. A woman’s notion of self, femininity, and womanhood are all the inherited contrast to that of man. “Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself,” Beauvoir most famously writes. Man is the subject. Man is the Absolute. Woman is the Other.
For Beauvoir, woman is not defined as a minority. Woman’s understanding and definition and place in the world is defined by power itself – primarily male power (the patriarchy). In this respect, women are like the proletariat, she says, in the Marxist understanding of history and power-relations.
In being defined as the opposite Other of man, women have been slaves or vassals to men who have defined them and their position from their privileged position of power. This is the necessity of the Hegelian dialectic at work – but for Beauvoir, there is no movement to a synthesis; we are forever locked in the thesis (man) vs. antithesis (woman) dynamic which has created the current condition of woman. In being defined as the opposite of man, woman’s condition is that she is made into a separate caste of person (socio-economically), has low power and low prestige in society, and has a low history and nonexistent (or very minimal) tradition to give her sustenance and provide meaning in her life. Following Heidegger’s conception of geworfenheit (thrownness), woman is essentially thrown (or born) into the harsh world of male domination, patriarchy, and othering and expected to survive in this brutal environ.
In examining the structures of society Beauvoir reaches the conclusion that many of us today, are probably familiar with – in part, because Beauvoir was the matriarch of popularizing these views for the rest of the second wave feminists post-1960. Philosophy, law, religion, and economic systems were all constructed by men and therefore reflect and engender a patriarchal worldview. These views, when accepted, especially by women, come at the expense of women and perpetual the power dynamic and the privileged position of men and their worldview in society. Even science, Beauvoir suggests, is a male patriarchal system and structure used from a position of power which is to the benefit of men. “Separate but equal” is a sophistic power play: equal implies equality, separate ensures male domination. As she explains, biology, psychology, physiology are all tools for othering – and men, being the leaders in science, use them to other women.
Thus, the oppressor-oppressed dynamic gives a greater sense of importance or superiority to the oppressor over the non-oppressor. The characteristics and definitions of the “authentic woman” has been defined by men to the detriment of women.
Thus, toward the end of the introduction she asks the question yet again – how should woman identity? And from this question and answer, how does being woman affect one’s life?
To this end Beauvoir is hopeful. The ecstatic and chaotic nature of the dialectic, especially in moments of crisis and explosion, have granted women greater and greater consciousness of the reality of their current disposition. The Industrial Revolution, the westward march over the prairies (in the U.S., for example), and the two world wars thrust women into the positions that men had traditionally occupied for millennia. Women could do what men could do just as well (if not better) than men. The growing consciousness of women showed that women could be co-creators with men rather than submissive objectified subject-objects completely understood in relational negativity to man.
Thus, the new consciousness of women posits three positions for woman to take: Woman is equal to man, woman is inferior to man, or woman is superior to man. At the present moment, however, woman is trapped in the hierarchy of interests and systems established by men which perpetuate the feeling and consciousness and understanding of woman as inferior to man. Any reduction of freedom to facticity (as is the case with women historically) is an absolute evil according to Beauvoir. (Here is some Augustinian influence on her – that by accepting definitional facticity and othering woman is deprived of the good and the privation of the good is that which is evil according to Augustine, thus the privation of the good within woman by accepting to be objectified is an absolute evil.) However, Beauvoir does not blame man for the objectification of women and the evil that follows from the privation of her subject-consciousness essence (her “soul” if you will). Beauvoir blames women for this. The fault lies not in the system per se, or those perpetuating the objectification, the fault lies with the consenting subject who accepts objectification and reduction to definitional facticity through “consent.” Women, in consenting to the male dominated patriarchy and all its systems (including the biological sciences) are the ones who are really at fault.
Woman’s true essence is the same as man. She is a free subject-being of consciousness capable of free and creative actions and choices on accord of her own will. Woman can, and will, discover herself and choose to live in a world of her choosing – not a world constructed and offered to her by men which, when accepted (or consented to) enslaves her. Thus, Beauvoir sees the future of women as either consenting to her objectified Othering or fight for her own liberation to become sovereign of her own consciousness and decision-making.
Following Hegel and Heidegger, Beauvoir does see the dialectic as essential. We are all Mitsein, “being-with.” Woman is a being-with… It is ultimately up to her to choose the companionship that will accompany her. She can choose the companionship of the ready-made world of male patriarchy and thus remained enslaved, or she can construct for herself the companion dialectical antithesis and, in doing this, reflect her own freedom and sovereignty as a result.
What is the authentic woman for Beauvoir? It is not found in definitions or characteristics or biology. The authentic woman is the woman who, on her own accord, empowers herself and chooses to live and make a world of her own will.
But what can we take away from Beauvoir’s infamous introduction? The question of the authentic woman is generally a dead-end and one that embraces the reduction of woman to bare facticity and is, as a result, an absolute evil since this allows women to be defined by the Other as the Other (e.g. defined by man and all the systems that man has established over her). Woman’s primary understanding of herself is as the negated Other to man, thus locking woman into a negative correspondent relationship to man which perpetuates man’s power dynamic over woman. However, the advancement (or growth) of consciousness is showing the weakness of the male-dominated world of ready-made values and systems. Woman, to be truly free and authentic, must break free of bare facticity and definitional othering to embrace her true essence (which is equal to that of man) which is her ability to choose for herself and create for herself.
This was originally published on Hesiod’s Corner, May 31, 2018.